The nursing home odor was absent from the flowered halls. A nose-wrinkling lunch smell (beets?) lingered in the air. My aunt’s diminutive figure seemed to barely raise the bedclothes off the hospital bed. “Wake up Aunty Margaret, look who I brought to see you,” my cousin sang. “It’s Laura, from Florida, Dorothy’s daughter.”
I perched on the firm bedside and one of my ten year old second cousins helped raise the head of the bed with the remote so Aunt Margaret could sit up and see us. As her body rose her consciousness swirled upwards and her eyes creaked open slowly, a faded cornflower blue so like my mom’s. Her vision was not on us or the lovely room but turned inward and her litany began uninterrupted, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. Idon’tknowwhattodo. Please help me. I don’t know what to do.”
I held her hand and stroked her arm, “You don’t need to do anything. Just relax. We’ll have a visit and talk. You’re safe; you don’t need to do anything.” Those words though. I don’t know what to do. The pain and confusion behind them—they gutted me as deftly as a knife slicing the white underbelly of a dead fish. Her soul was crying out and I felt completely helpless. My logical brain kicked in and firmly instructed this was not about me but about connecting with Aunt Margaret and giving her some peace and joy amidst the chaos Alzheimer’s had inflicted on her brain and body. All I needed to do was send her love.
When there was a lapse in her monologue or I felt I had a split second to capture her attention I spoke loudly and happily, “Hiiiii Aunty Margaret! It’s Laura, all the way from Florida, to see you.” If I got through I could tell immediately. Her eyes focused on my face and grew bluer and clear, I could literally see the veil lift as recognition dawned. It may not have been ‘me’ her niece she saw; only a smiling face but her impeccable manners and social etiquette have got nothing on this disease, “Oh, how nice to see you. Florida, yes, yes. Wonderful. Lovely.” We repeated this scene a dozen times over our hour long visit in between her repetitive loops. Every smile was a gift—every new word a joy and brought hope that she felt loved and safe. Even, “Oh, my poor feet.” And I lifted her stockinged foot to rub gently asking if that felt good. Eventually came, “Oh, yes.”
When our visit ended we left her with kisses and promises to return the next day. My process was internalized and complicated by memories of mom’s illness and a sadness of the quality of my aunt’s life. My inner voice wailed: It’s not what I would want. It’s not fair. It’s a medical conspiracy. It’s wrong. How can I leave her like that? Now it could be all about me and I could work through my emotions and reactions. Perhaps I added the tone of fear to her voice? Possibly. Perhaps I was seeing her as a victim rather than an amazing and empowered soul having a human experience. Probably. Did I doubt her wise self knew what to do? Yes. Perhaps she needed to be reminded to let go, that’s all she needed to do. She was safe and loved and could let go. Perhaps she was mirroring a lesson for me? Definitely.
What do I need to learn to let go of? Fear. Fear of the unknown or being out of control. I haven’t been able to make peace with our sailboat incident and it’s been a whole year! I haven’t felt safe and have held on with white knuckles to the illusion of being in control. I lost my faith that I am exactly where I need to be—experiencing the lessons that I am ready for. I’ve padded my body with extra pounds in order to protect myself. I am ready to accept this gift from Auntie Margaret and pry my fingers loose from the past, wave my open hands madly, feel the release, and trust in my own journey.
When I said goodbye to Auntie Margaret the next day I kissed her forehead and didn’t wake her. I asked Mom and Aunty Betty and Uncle Jack and her mum, Winnie, to be with her and to help her on the journey to come. I told her I loved her and would treasure my memories of her and thanked her for telling me those amazingly detailed mouse stories that instilled in me my love for storytelling all those years ago. I told her it was okay to let go that she was loved and safe—it can never be said too much. I told her she does know what to do—deep inside and to listen closely to her heart.
I know, too—listen closely to my own heart, hear the gentle flow and rhythmic pull in one direction. Go. Yes, go there. I may need to walk slowly, my steps may be tentative, but I will keep moving forward leaving the trappings of fear discarded along the path. Moving towards love is true north for me and the only healing direction. For Aunty Marg, too. For us all.